Sometimes, in this unpredictable music business, you're required to cover an event that is less enjoyable than two root canals, regardless of how many free hot dogs, free Budweiser, and free tickets are thrown in your lap. With certain artists, no amount of musicianship, lyricism, or 'undiscovered rarities', is going to win you over. Such was the case with the Lifehouse 'Smoke and Mirrors Tour' landing at the Fillmore this past Monday. No offense to Lifehouse, a talented group for what they do, but I'd rather watch grass grow than hear 'Hanging By A Moment' one more time, from now until doomsday. Same for American Idol 'winner' Kris Allen, though I will confess SOME of Alyssa Bernal's material, turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
That being said, I ventured down to The Fillmore to embrace the Detroit Rock Blog's second VIP experience over the last few months (see our recent article on The Palace). And I am proud to report, the Fillmore does not disappoint. It is an excellent live venue, not only for musicians traveling either a certain upward or downward level of fame, but for fans of live music. They do provide several seating choices: you can fight with the masses to see who can make it to the very front of the general admission floor area; or you can sit back in the mezzanine, the balconies, or the main floor area surrounding the main bar, sit back and take in the show. Though we prefer the spaciousness of the Fox, lets face it, not everybody can fill the Fox to capacity. The staff of the Fillmore was enthusiastic, articulate, and answered our never ending questions about seating and ticket availability with patient smiles. For that we are grateful.
Plus we got two free beers. And some decent quesadillas.
We'd never heard of her and, at first, were more fascinated with her bassist. Bernal may be groomed for pop stardom, but her Bass player appeared as if his life dream is to join 'Rancid' with his Sex Pistols attire and pink & green every way mohawk.
Bernal's voice stubbornly drew our attention back to this gifted youngster, who originated her career on YouTube. But, she quickly separated herself from the pack via the attentive eye of legendary producer Pharrell Williams.
Despite a beautiful voice, her songs weren't overwhelmingly memorable, with the exception of the curiously catchy 'Stay'. The song possesses a rare quality, that when played live, it immediately grabs you. It's soft, melodic, and honest, and I like that in a single, regardless of who's singing it.
No question, eventually she's going to be in league with the Sarah McGlachlan's of the pop world. Her voice is young magic, and could melt Jason Voorhee's heart with her saccharine melodies and roller skate choruses.
Gawd, I feel sorry for this guy.
He seems like such a nice fellow, in the TV interviews and when he rolls onstage, half-halfheartedly belting out 'How You DOING DETROIT!'.
I know what you're thinking . . how can I feel sorry for someone who's a millionaire musician, out on tour, amassing fans, doing what he loves ?
Well, for one, the guy sold his soul to American Idol for that fame. He's got a certain level of talent and, on stage, performs with an earnestness forged in the fires of reality television Hell. But tonight he looked as though he'd rather be anywhere instead of Detroit. And anywhere but on stage.
Not that his performance wasn't solid. The world's biggest karaoke contest winner of 2009 did a fair job given his 'aww shucks' personality and haggard energy. We all know Kris prospered from a Faustian bargain, to overcome the far superior Adam Lambert. And, now he's in the thick of it, carrying the Idol mark of Cain, and finding it doesn't wash off as easily without the golden pipes of a Carrie Underwood. While he may be painfully overrated, I feel, in light of his ability, he's also painfully (with help), overachieved.
Some of the material from his self-titled album showed spark. Red Guitar is a joyous, highlight that exhibited musicians finding a comfortable space, individually, while playing as different pieces of the same puzzle. It's the moment Kris comes across as the most sincere, and the most in tune with his fellow artists. 'Live Like Were Dyin' does borrow from Tim McGraw but drew the crowd right in with it's infection chorus. His cover of eighties pop gem 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' was actually spirited.
But there were some unfortunate and undeniable gaffes. He possesses an albums worth of decent material, yet failed to play two of his most recognizable singles ('The Truth' and 'No Boundaries'). Furthermore, he devoted eleven minutes of the set to covering Tears For Fears AND The Beatles 'Come Together'.
One cover is fine, two is karaoke. Unless you're Ann and Nancy Wilson.
Someone needs to sit Kris down and gently explain that 'Come Together' has been officially retired and should never again be covered by anyone.
Well the Detroit fans should be happy.
Ten years into it, Lifehouse has reached the point where they simply can't perform every song the fans are screaming for, at every concert or we'd all be there until the dawn's early light crept over the top of the Leland Hotel. So whenever a lead vocalist pulls out the trusty acoustic guitar for a 'medley', it's actually a feather in their cap of longevity. Though, the last time I had to sit through a 'medley' of hits was Kid Rock back in 2004 at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids.
But for the songs Lifehouse did play in their entirety, they gave it their all, particularly guitarist Ben Carey. Ben possesses a unique talent for combining his seasoned skill playing guitar, with the showmanship of a veteran rock musician. Carey didn't appear as tired, or as occasionally bored by the fame, as the rest of the band. He jumps around on stage like a kid on Christmas morning. Singer Jason Wade and bassist Bryce Soderberg definitely had legitimate moments of excitement, where they seemed plugged into the performance, such as on the white hot 'Falling In' where Wade dueted with Alyssa Bernal. But also seemed resigned to phone brief sections of this one in.
Still, I can't be too hard on Lifehouse, and Wade in particular. It was a Monday night, on a long tour, and, frankly, the fans still got their moneys worth.
The show opened with Wade singing a welcome to the crowd, an intro they titled 'Hello There' on the set list, as the band took the stage in typical rock star fashion. They bled the opening into the rousing song 'All In' from their latest album 'Smoke & Mirrors'. And for a moment, all seems promising. The band seems to be in top form as they roll through Spin, Nerve Damage, and 'You And Me' with equal fervor.
There's nothing different or original about these takes on old favorites, but there's nothing necessarily negative about them either.
Their performance of 'Whatever It Takes', however, is as solemn as the song itself, and in the crowd, tears are flowing.
But, when Soderberg takes over the vocals on 'Wrecking Ball' they flat lose the momentum and never quite regain it, until near the encore. Wade follows 'Wrecking Ball' with what could only be described as the 'LIFEHOUSE request hour'. The rest of the band takes a break, while Wade performs whatever song titles are screamed out to him by zealous fans. He begins with 'Breathing' from their first album 'No Name Face', then obliges the crowd with a few moments of 'Storm', 'Sick Cycle Carousel', and teases with a snippet of 'Everything'.
I understand that when your hits are bittersweet acoustic gems, and you have a fan base to satisfy, there's no way to keep the shine from being dimmed somewhere during the set. But, honestly, it felt like I was back at my high school prom, slow dancing to Taylor Dane.
The fans, however, loved it.
While 'Hanging By A Moment' is always good to get a mellowed crowd revved back up, in this case it could have been played by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the flock would have responded with the same energy, hopping up and down, and singing along. The band cleverly utilizes this energy to draw everyone back into the flow of the concert, though if you look beneath the surface, it's obvious they're getting tired. They coast through 'First Time' satisfactorily, but nothing more.
Broken is where Wade turns the emotional jet engine back on. Every meaningful note is sincere, sad, and perfect. This is the high point.
They encored with the superb rocker 'Halfway Gone'. And, finally, mercifully, Lifehouse satisfies their devoted legion, with what a vocal majority have spent the entire concert howling drunkenly for: a full, heavenly, performance of fan favorite 'Everything'
A study of contrasts:
Bernal is cute and has a beautiful voice, no question, but coming off the stage, when it's time to sell merchandise, pose, and make witty banter with new fans, she let her annoyance show. You see, this is the foundation, the time to build your audience, and to generate word of mouth interest in your upcoming album. Easiest way to achieve that when jumping on and off the tour bus, is with a little friendly interaction. It's also where it stops being glory and starts being work. She's young and it shows, lacking the patience an artist develops (or doesn't) after a few years on the road. She was tired, frustrated, and after multiple autographs, curt.
The opposite must be said about Lifehouse' Jason Wade. Though Jason was tired, and obviously ready for a nap, he patiently explained to those of us waiting that he would load his guitar into the bus and be right out. Touch of class, this kid. He'd just played an blue-chip show, and the last thing anyone wants to do after rocking out for 16 songs is listen to fans blather about how, back in 2000, your first album changed their life. They've heard it before, likely in every major and minor city in the states. That's the influence a musician can have. But this is also the job, and after a decade in music, Wade clearly understands his greater responsibility to the masses.
Fans are fickle. And they age. But, they'll remember the five minutes a favorite rock star took to shake their hand or speak with them, well into their seventies.
So Wade patiently signs the autographs, he poses for dozens of pictures, talks with his fans about whether or not he's sick, how many shows they've been to, favorite songs, “Hi, this is my mom!”, “Can you sing this?”, “When are you coming back to Michigan?”, and on and on.
I was impressed.
And that says a lot because deep down I believe Jason and his three band mates got together in a college dorm room ten years ago to sign a different kind of Faustian bargain. This one involved little more than agreeing to write nothing but sad bastard music, a little heavier than straight emo, but completely geared towards the heartstrings of women 15-40. This was how they would amass their popularity and rock and roll fortune.
So be it.
The guy talked to every fan who was waiting in the November cold. He signed an autograph for every request. And he spoke to fans with a respect that let them know their loyalty was appreciated.
Hell, he even answered an interview question for the Blog.
Well done, Jason Wade, from a non-fan.
Overall, it was a good performance, and you conducted yourself afterward with class.
Take a cue, rock and rollers.